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Market Movements: African American Involvement in School Voucher Reform

reviewed by Paul E. Peterson - September 05, 2007

coverTitle: Market Movements: African American Involvement in School Voucher Reform
Author(s): Thomas C. Pedroni
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415956080, Pages: 172, Year: 2007
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Milwaukee has the largest, longest-running school voucher program available to central-city students from low-income families. Begun in 1990, the voucher program was expanded in 1998 to include schools with a religious affiliation, and it is expected to serve nearly 20,000 in 2007, over 15 percent of the City’s school population. As such, it raises a host of questions: 1) Who makes use of a voucher when offered? The best and the brightest? The devout? The most needy? Or a cross section of everyone? 2) What happens to students at voucher schools? Do they learn more? Are they more likely to graduate from high school, or go on to college? 3)  Do the higher quality private schools drive out the lower quality ones? Or vice versa?  4) What is the impact of vouchers on traditional public schools? Does the school board give more autonomy to principals? Is the collective bargaining contract modified? Do student test scores improve? Are unpopular middle schools abandoned for more popular K-8 alternatives? Are after-school programs introduced? Does school quality improve or spiral downward? Do per pupil public-school resources decline, as support for the public school dwindles?

Factual answers to such basic questions are urgently needed if one is to assess how school vouchers work in practice, not just in the theoretical world that most scholars live in. It is thus with anticipation one begins a book on vouchers that opens with delightful specificity: “You know you’ve arrived in Milwaukee. Wafts of fermenting yeast, unctuous and sweet, push their way through your car window as you roll along Interstate 94’s skyline of abandoned breweries.” If one pauses to wonder just how abandoned breweries can generate sweet smells (they don’t, my Milwaukee sources say; the odor comes from a nearby bakery), one is nonetheless encouraged by the promise of a first-hand account that might unlock Milwaukee’s many mysteries.

Sadly, that is not to be. Before long, Thomas Pedroni launches into eye-glazing discussions of critical theory, subaltern agency, identity formation, and hegemonic alliance. We learn, for example, that “horizontal dynamism is present in the suturing that takes place as different dominant groups gather together in tense unity under a single ‘ideological umbrella’; vertical dynamism is present as the discourses of these dominant groups act in creative ways to disarticulate prior connections and rearticulate groups of (largely ideologically unformed) people into this larger ideological movement.” I think this means that Milwaukee’s voucher program was made possible by an unusual alliance among left-wing activists, poor blacks, business leaders, Republicans, and a thoughtful Democratic mayor.  

The book has a certain charm nonetheless, as it avoids calling poor blacks a lumpen proletariat, as others in this tradition are inclined to do. Instead, the author seeks to show, from an anti-market, critical-theory perspective, that poor black families are correct to join a market-based movement that “theory” has shown to be against their interests. When vouchers were being proposed, black people were being sent hither and yon across the city to attend bad public schools. It is thus rational for them, Pedroni says, to opt instead for a voucher to attend private schools nearby, especially when their classes were smaller and teachers were nicer. The author selects material from interviews with a number of low-income parents that pretty much convinces us that those who opted for private schools knew what they were doing. If that does not quite justify a well-educated, savvy Howard Fuller and his Black Alliance for Educational Options taking money from objectively “conservative” foundations in order to make all this possible, it at least exculpates poor black families from being dupes consenting to their own destruction.

The moral we are asked to take from the homily (or so it appears): Poor black people are objectively correct to fight for school choice, and sophisticated critical theorists are objectively correct to work with teacher unions so as to deny them that choice. Even though the critical theorists, unencumbered by facts, undoubtedly know more than the parents do, a simple question hangs in the air: Why did the parents of voucher students say their kids were enjoying schools with smaller classes and more helpful teachers, despite the fewer dollars per pupil available to such schools? Objectively speaking, could schools operating in the marketplace be doing more with less, after all?    

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 05, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14599, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:10:31 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Peterson
    Harvard University
    PAUL PETERSON is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Editor-In-Chief of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research on education policy. He is a former director of the Governmental Studies program at the Brookings Institution. Peterson is the author or editor of over one hundred articles and thirty-plus books.
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